By MARTY LEVINE
Jinx Walton, who is retiring as Pitt’s chief information officer this month, remembers what passed for high-tech on campus when she took office — just 18 years ago.
“Back in 2000, people connected remotely through a modem pool” to the Internet, using dial-up landline phones, she recalls. “There were only so many modems available,” and a relatively tiny bit of bandwidth. “Once students started to connect, we just didn’t have the capacity.”
Foliage could literally block Pitt’s entire Internet connection back then. A microwave transmitter on the roof of the Cathedral of Learning was Pitt’s link to the Internet, beamed from the data center 10 miles away in O’Hara Township.
“If there was a big storm, it would interrupt the connection,” Walton says. “If trees grew too high, they could interrupt it.” At one point, University officials were forced to approach a private homeowner to shorten a tree that was blocking the signal, she said.
“When I became the CIO, we had had a lot of failures with technology,” she added. “We had an eight-hour network outage. There were just so many problems.”
She chalks up the early issues to the rapid evolution of technology — and believes her most important accomplishment since then has been putting the right infrastructure in place: “Those early years, when so much of the infrastructure was failing, I think that was the toughest time. The University was depending on us to deliver stable service. … It was tough but it was rewarding to make those changes and put that stability in place.
“Now we have 100 gigabyte network backbone. We have more capacity than we currently need. It’s not very glamorous. The infrastructure part is not really something we usually talk about.”
But it’s vital, now that the Internet is central to how the University conducts teaching, research and business, she says.
Ellen “Jinx” Walton — she’s had the nickname since birth, just because her father preferred it — has been connected to Pitt since 1969, graduating with an English major and moving through various technology-connected positions, as well as a brief stint in admissions and financial aid.
Tech security has changed tremendously through the years as well, she noted: “When everything was in central systems, it was much easier to secure.”
Before 2000, she said, Pitt didn’t have staff members dedicated to Internet security. “What we called security was a half-time position who would change the combination locks around our offices.”
It took increasing administrative support to stabilize Pitt’s tech capabilities, she said: “Our network operation center was built in 2005 and that really contributed to our ability to constantly monitor issues before they impact the University community.”
Today, her office employees nearly 250 full-time staff members and 150 student positions. Walton was named Pittsburgh CIO of the Year in 2007 and one of Computerworld’s Premier Top 100 IT leaders in 2010.
She hopes the recent Information Technology Assessment Report, which offered more than a dozen recommendations for improving Pitt’s IT structure and capabilities, “is going to give the University the ability to focus on how we can use technology most effectively. The IT assessment has really positioned us to address issues that are going to make everyone efficient, but in an institution this large, it’s really difficult to communicate so everyone knows the direction in which we’re going.”
Still, she adds, “the people at the University are supportive of each other and supportive of change, although change is always hard for everyone. In a university, you have the opportunity to support three different constituencies and they are not constituencies that can deal well with outdated technology.”
Walton plans to take the first six months of retirement before deciding on her next move. It won’t be a job, she says. “I’ve worked a long time and I want to make sure I don’t make commitments until I really figure out what I want to do next. I want it to be productive.”
She believes the position she is leaving will attract top candidates: “This is a wonderful place to work. People who work here for the most part recognize that it’s just a great opportunity to do something meaningful. I believe the CIO position for Pitt is one of the best CIO positions in the country.”
Marty Levine is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.